David Tennant is best known for his television roles—he currently stars in the popular British detective show Broadchurch, he played the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who, and was the supervillain Kilgrave in Netflix’s Jessica Jones (one of the best TV shows of 2015). But on March 24, Tennant makes his New York stage debut as Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The play is the first in a series of four: Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 follow Richard II, with Henry V concluding the set. We caught up Tennant about the show.
What about the role of Richard II drew you in?
I was just fascinated by this capricious and quite likeable character who by the end you feel such great empathy and sympathy for. He’s far from a heroic king, yet he achieves this kind of heroic status by the end through the power of his rhetoric and his wit. I suppose there are more famous kings in Shakespeare’s plays, but Richard II had always particularly appealed to me. He’s a bit unknowable and surprising.
Do you miss Shakespeare when you’re busy with your television roles? Do you make an effort to return to it?
I do relish the opportunity to. The writing’s just really good. What you’re always chasing is that script that you have to work to be worthy of, rather than a script that arrives and you think, Right, how am I going to say that word to sound like something a human being would actually say? Rather than find a way of making these words bend to my will, I have to bend to the will of these words. It’s quite difficult. There are 400 years between us and these words; they don’t necessarily instantly connect. There’s a process of translation that you have to do, both literally and emotionally. But there’s a point hopefully, as you’re rehearsing, where it shifts from the words driving you to you’re in charge of them. And there’s something joyous about that, because of course they’re the most brilliant words and they can fly in so many different unexpected directions. To have that vocabulary and that poetry at your command is wonderfully invigorating. They become kind of the Olympic events for actors—you can always set yourself against what’s gone before you. And, well, that starts out as a thrill and then becomes a terrible pressure and an intimidation.
How do you think this play sets the stage for the three shows that follow it in this series?
Because I’m only doing Richard, who opens the cycle, I’ve allowed myself not to care. Objectively, I’m very chuffed to be part of that experience. But subjectively, from Richard’s point of view, he’s gone, he’s out of it. Any influence he has on what comes after is not because of anything that he will do. Having said that, you do get a chill when you know as a character you’re setting something up that will have terrible repercussions down the road. So it’s a fantastic opportunity to see these plays in sequence and to wonder whether Shakespeare imagined them being played like this, whether of all those echoes, which are accidental and which are a genius at work. It’s a brilliant journey to go on as an audience member.